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The Main Cause of Drug Addiction is the Pharmaceutical Industry

Matt Weeks
Senior woman holding out a vial of pills

Pharmaceutical drug profits will surpass $610 billion by 2021. At that rate, they’ll become more lucrative than big banks.

No one denies that drug addiction is a serious problem in the United States. However, in our hurry to eradicate a systemic and complex problem, often we substitute the real story with a fictitious boogeyman. Perhaps we need a proper, steely-eyed, gaze at reality – that being pharmaceutical companies’ ridiculously high profits.

On the one hand, politicians have loudly proclaimed that many of the nation’s drugs are seeping through our porous borders, coming in, quite literally, on the backs of illegal immigrants finding ways to get through an easily exploitable system.

Young boy slipping under barbed wire fence

On March 19, 2018, President Trump delivered a speech on drugs and addiction from Manchester, New Hampshire, the state that suffers the second highest death rate from the opioid crisis (behind only West Virginia).

The speech focused mostly on punitive measures for drug dealers, but the official initiative released by the White House that day articulated out a slightly more robust strategy: Education (mainly in the form of commercials), a crackdown on drugs smuggled across the border, and expanding access for opioid addicts.

Baked into the administration’s three-pronged approach are the assumptions that drug addicts are misinformed about pharmaceuticals and that drug dealers deserve a large part of the blame for the epidemic. What isn’t mentioned is the role that the pharmaceutical industry plays in this story— a BIG part to leave out.

Big Pharma and Addiction Rates

We know that three quarters of all heroin addicts start off by getting prescribed drugs by the physicians. We also know that Americans consume 99 percent of all the hydrocodone and 80 percent of all the oxycodone IN THE WORLD. Those numbers are staggering. Despite having the access to the same medications as everyone else in the world, Americans are far more likely to turn to Vicodin, Percocet and OxyContin than anyone else.

Lines of crushed opioids and rolled $20

What’s so different about America? It’s our healthcare system. The profit-driven plight of treatment in the United States means that fewer people get the kind of help they need, and those that do pay more for it. The amount of money in American prescriptions alone is astronomical. No matter what happens with the larger economy, pill makers continue to make more money every year. Prescription drug profits will reach past $610 billion by 2021. At that rate, they’ll become more lucrative than big banks.

With all that extra cash lying around, what do drug companies do? They market, and market and market and market. Big Pharma spends 19 times more on advertising than on basic research—19 times more! So, that line about the cost of medications reflecting the cost for research & development… not exactly true.

Big Pharma’s Advertising

In the U.S., unlike in many industrialized countries, nothing stops Big Pharma from advertising prescription-only medications directly to patients. In an age where Americans are increasingly distrustful of people with real expertise, drug companies have found that they can increase the rate of prescriptions by appealing to the gut instincts of Americans.

And it’s not only the end users who get the tough sell; pharmaceutical manufacturers also spend a fortune to convince doctors. Although laws are in place that limit the level of gifts and effort that drug companies may lavish on physicians, there are many find creative ways around these particulars.

Trump and Drugs

Pharma companies also contribute to politicians. When President Trump took aim at Big Pharma for jacking up pill prices on March 20, 2017, it spurred an immediate donation-a-thon. The next day, drug companies dished out more money to politicians (on both sides of the aisle) than on any day of the year. The president’s rhetoric on drugs has yet to achieve the same level of spice.

Instead, he’s using the bully pulpit to rail against another breed of drug dealers—the kind with cartels in Mexico. But if the metric is killing Americans, those drug lords don’t hold a candle to Big Pharmaceutical companies. Deaths from prescription drugs have quadrupled since 1999, and rise steeply every year. Today, more Americans die from a prescribed pill than an illegal drug.

President Trump at podium

Americans’ unique dependence on these drugs isn’t because of a porous border. More medications likely come into our lives through our pharmacies than across our borders, but cartels don’t give money to politicians (or if they do, it’s no match for pharmaceutical companies).

So we’re fighting a well-intentioned war against the wrong enemy. We’ve trained our focus on educating victims and eradicating a secondary menace while leaving Public Enemy Number One alone. This won’t solve the problem.

To be fair, a clear solution doesn’t yet exist. Prescription drugs provide a much needed service. Millions of people need them to function. But while the epidemic grows, claiming more American lives every year, the instrument of destruction is still advertised to its victims like a candy bar.



Matt Weeks

A writer living and working in Athens, GA, Matt's work has appeared in various newspapers, books, magazines and online publications over the last 15 years. When he's not writing, he hosts bar trivia, plays in local bands, and makes a mean guacamole. He holds an undergraduate degree in journalism and a master's degree in organizational theory. His favorite movie is "Fletch."

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